Celebrating East African Writing!

Merchants and Gifts by Osas

My name is Jennifer. I am twelve, but I already look like a little lady. That is what old Thompson always said. Bless his soul, he is dead now. He never wanted anything from me. Not something that I would not give out anyhow; unlike the other men. No, seriously. He bought me a white frilly dress once, out of a whim, and then sent me away with a kiss on my cheek. Only a kiss on the cheek. Can you imagine that? Of course, I came back the next day.

I am glad that I am light. In primary school back in Kisumu they called me pointy and other badder names. But now, the customers at the Coast like my skin tone. They will rather chat with me than with the black ones. “Navy blue”, that is how my pal Njoroge calls the lakesiders. I laugh with him, and we find it funny, because they are not really blue. But it sounds so English, like a club blazer with golden buttons.

Njoroge has a crippled leg and works tour buses, hawking sodas and condoms. His small and limp leg gives him 50 % more revenue than his colleagues. That is why they do not like him much; they shun him. But he is very kind. We sometimes share a soda. An Alvaro. Njoroge always says the same when I buy an Alvaro, and I always laugh loud, cheekily, as I am expected to. But I will soon have to try it out, for real. I tell myself that it only looks large. That Ricardo mzungu guy could like the idea. I will ask him a higher sum then; but I do not know whether I should better ask him before, or afterwards, when I have made him come. Better before. You can never trust these men. What he has agreed on clearly, he should live up to.

I think of Kisumu often. In Kisumu we were still all complete. And settled. Not rich maybe, but somehow settled, and I went to primary school every day and had a nice clean school uniform and even real leather shoes! That is, until the Violence came.

When in town, I had often admired the big windows of the shops in and near the CBD. The farm tractors were cool, but I knew I was too small for them. No – what I had really fallen in love with was the tricycle. A wonderful, shiny red tricycle in the window of Mr. Patel’s household appliances and kitchen store. It had white wheels, and two little side wheels at the back, which is why Mama called it a tricycle. Not a small trike like for children, but with two real wheels. And one could take the small wheelies away, once one had mastered to drive without them, like the boda-bodas. I could see already myself, racing past the other kids, on my fast way to school.

The Indian always smiled at us, and sometimes he even gave us some chewing gum or sweets, when Mama bought something. But it serves him right that they broke his windows and took out all his stuff. He was too expensive, and he exploited his employees. All Wahindi do that, they are just so stingy and mean.

The tricycle was also taken away. I cried for a whole night after the tricycle was stolen. It was the one thing I longed for more than anything else in the world. They took it away from me, the bastards! They had no right to do that, because Mama would have paid for it; she had promised it right for my ninth birthday. And no new tricycle ever after appeared in the broken hole of a window, on top of all the shards and splinters; because his shop now is closed and burned-out, the shutters are permanently down.

They say the whole Patel family moved away to Nairobi, to relatives. Otieno’s hardware shop now gets his business, because it is the only one not too far away. That shop still is ratty, but Otieno now drives a flashy new car. He also has got a new flossy blueberry with different ringtone melodies for different callers.

Mama died, after her used clothes stall in the estate was burned down then, together with the other stalls, and with all her clothes. They say she died of tuberculosis. The retros did not help her anymore after that event. And often, she did not take them, but just stayed in bed. I heard Anyang’ Nyong’o in the radio, he blasted about the “justified rage of the people,” and about “young people not accepting a stolen election”. He surely is right, but why could they not stay in CBD, and only break some windows and plunder some shops there instead?

Mother did not steal anything, and I know she voted for the oranges. She had hoped for change. Sadly, she was right in a way: our fortune changed indeed after the vote.

After Mama’s burial, Uncle James (who actually is some kind of weird third-degree cousin, as I gathered, and not her brother) promised to take good care of us. They held a harambee and gave him some money for his noble promise, because he had come all the way from Mombasa.

But he did always beat us, and did not send my sister Marcia to go to kindergarten; he said that we did not deserve it, because we did not work hard enough in the household, and that he had no spare money left for urchins whom he only gave asylum out of the goodness of his Christian heart. Goodness, my arse! When he came for Marcia, wielding a heavy black rubberkiboko, because she had broken a cup in the kitchen – she is small, and cannot easily reach up to the sink, so it slipped from her little hand when she tried to put it back at the side, after helping me with drying the dishes – I snatched her and we ran away. But not before I had given the TV set in the living room a good kick, when we passed by it.

It fell off its stand, and I could hear the loud crashing sound in our backs when we sped through the front door like crazed dik-diks. I wish I could have seen that blast, but he was behind us with the whip, and we could not even turn back to look. But I heard him cry out loud, and roar and wail in the house, while we ran past the dozing estate watchie; a nice oldmzee with a scruffy grey beard and a visor cap. I miss him. He often had time to chat with me and tell me some stories about old and new people, and some proverbs.

“Uncle” James I do not miss. That arse. I hope that his wife gave him a beating for the TV set, and for the two runaway free mbochs, hehehe. She is a screamer, she is stingy, and he did never have much of a say when she was around in the house.

We now live in Diani. I found myself and Marcia a cheap tin shack in a cheap estate. The landlord is generous. When I do not have enough at the end of the month, he gives me credit, and I can pay him “in naturals”, as he says. That is convenient, and it never takes long until he is done. He even gives me tea afterwards, good milky tea with a lot of sugar. I found something for Marcia too; some donors have built an academy near the slum estate.

I cannot go to school anymore here, because I must work. But she can, and it is good that someone looks after her. I do not want to leave her alone at home all the time. She is only eight, and she might do silly stuff. Some smaller girls have even vanished. The school has a brightly painted wall, and they call it “Academy of Good Hope” and sometimes there is some elderly mzungu lady from Britain who visits their parish’s good deeds, and pats the children’s heads, and all loudly sing an anthem. They never give them money though, not even a bit, although I am sure they could, if they have enough money for flying here. When I asked why, the teacher slapped me and told me never to be so ungrateful again, if I wanted Marcia to stay. So I apologized. I could have killed her, but I put down my head and played my “meek girl voice, contrite”. Miss Karima accepted my apology, and then lectured me for an endless time about gratefulness and godliness.

In that elementary school, there is also Aloysius. He is the office manager. Actually, he is the janitor, tea-boy and general cleaner, but he calls himself with this title. I wonder when he will get a business card printed with it. I do not like Aloysius. He is all the saved brother inside the school, all smooth, and ever so compliant with the Mzungus. He wears an ironed shirt and always has the gold-capped ink pen in it. But his pen is dry, and there is no ink around anywhere. Maybe a mzungu donor left it; or, rather, misplaced it and Aloysius snatched it up.

But in the evening, and on weekends, Aloysius hangs around with the beach boys. He hasn’t seen me – I was so shocked when I first saw a glimpse of his cream pink shirt there, that I immediately merged with the ground, and thereafter I was very very careful – but I have seen him. He always drinks “Sierra” beer (sometimes I think that he re-uses the same bottle ever and ever again, because I have never seen it elsewhere, not even in the hotel restaurants), and he smokes more bhang than any of them. He trumpets with a fake twang, and he always holds the largest roll of bhang and puffs away like a plastic dragon.

But usually I keep away from the beach boys, the touts, and their covens. They do their stuff and we do ours. We don’t interfere; or rather, I keep away when I see them. Sometimes, when they are in good mood, they give me a nod and throw me a mchongoano, and I throw them back a better one. But we have different clients and that is good. Marcia once quipped, with her squeaky little voice: “They are the lions, and we are the cheetahs!”  I slapped her immediately for that, but I smiled right after, so she knew that I was not really angry. She is a bright kid, and I am proud of her. She learns so fast from me. These beach boys aren’t real lions; they are hyenas with a mane, only strong in numbers; that is why I slapped her. But we are cheetahs all right, yes, tee-hee. I like that. I can run very quick like a cheetah, and can stretch and slip through any hole. I got a nasty scratch on my left breast from such an escape, damn barbed wire. The police never got me when they combed some of the bars for the other ladies whom they round up always when a bishop or imam wails out in public about immorality. I do not pay the police; we have no money left for that in my house. Besides, they are greedy, and will always want more. It is better not to be seen and caught. As children should.

Last Monday, I have taken Marcia with me for the first time, I have chosen a nice customer. Not Ricardo, I do not trust him. But the wrinkled old Frenchie was a good deal for that. I remembered how eagerly he had asked about my family after the last time, because customers usually do not care. They do not even want to know. I had made this mistake early in my work here, telling the Kisumu story to a rather young nice American mzungu with a short beard and spectacles, from Peace Corps, and I am sure I lost at least two more night’s earnings, because that one always looked in the other direction afterwards, and never approached me anymore; and when I walked up to him, and sat at his table, he called theaskari and that one pinched me and threw me out.

Yes, much better the Frenchman. I had carefully flattered him, told him that he was a gentleman and that my sister was such a nice small child, and that she should also get to know a real gentleman, not like the others. Jacques likes that way of being addressed. His English is terrible, and he is almost a dwarf, and he wears ugly bright ties, and he gives too high tips. The waiters laugh about him and call him Bwana Kibeti behind his back, but they always cheer and smile in his face and call him Daktari. Waiters are like that. My arse, that guy can barely walk straight, has calloused hands from his farmwork in France, and he always eats with a single fork only! But I like his height when he stands on his wallet.

Marcia is darker than I am, and I was afraid that Jacques would be disappointed. But luckily he was not; he was delighted, he called her “my leetil ebonii prîncess !”, and I laughed about that. Because Marcia, if anything, is a beggar girl rather than a princess for one day; I have read that story in one of the many books that the Wazungu brought with them and left in Marcia’s school. I read a lot; in fact I always carry one book with me wherever I go. You would not have thought that, heh? Right now I read Tom Clancy; he is hot, and there is a lot of tough action. But Marcia did not disappoint me; that girl is bright. She knows how to behave. I was a bit afraid secretly, so I stayed and watched, and gave the two a helping hand with the condom; actually, two hands and my supple tongue. Marcia once cried out, that silly girl – so I caught her eye and threatened her with a silent grimace and flashing of teeth. She immediately closed her mouth; she trusts me, and knows when I mean it in earnest.

She did not bleed much; I had told her before to exercise with a candle, and she wisely did. But Jacques was so excited about the blood, he really jumped up and down. One drop more and he would have cried of joy. That idiot. I told him all the stuff he wanted to hear; I can usually read their thoughts. The Wazungu, the Kyuks and the Jengs are easy to read, but I stay away from Wahindi; I never know what they think, and might be up to. I told him that Marcia was so sweet and innocent (actually, she is the one who always collects the raunchiest mchongoanos and brings them to me; I wonder what Swahili they teach them in the Academy of Good Hope), that she has always longed for an older man to i-ni-ti-a-te her (I had carefully learned the pronounciation for that difficult word, and had rehearsed it several times, and Jacques was duly impressed), and that he was so gentle and yet so strong and masterful. His head grew by half its size when he heard that.

It was then easy to squeeze more money out of him. I admit it: I gambled. I asked a whole 3000 bob. That is so ridiculous. The gorgeous classy ladies in the Tamarind in their long dresses barely get 3000 from a normal client, the guard there told me. But Jacques immediately gave it to me, when I promised that there could be more ebony princess for him in future.
I guess he thinks I will buy myself a new skimpy dress or posh high-heeled shoes with it, and spoil myself for good. The fool! The dress I can sure get for free from any hotel guest, in return for a good long “special massage”. No, I surely have not spent any of that money. I have carefully saved it. It put into a envelope. I glued it shut, and then I put it into a second, larger envelope, which I also glued. This way I cannot easily take it away when I feel any need.
It will all be for my little sister, none for me, no! I still have to add about 2000 more, and then I know, I will buy it. At last. A red tricycle. I saw it in a shop in Mombasa. It is almost exactly as mine, even the same manufacturer name printed in gold in the middle strut. She will get it for her ninth birthday, as a surprise. At last. And she will drive around and will smile and laugh, and ring the little bell all the time. And I will be happy, too, and watch over her.

© Osas 2010. This piece is part of the ongoing Creekside Princess Webisodes. Go here to read the rest.

If you would like this piece to be the Story of the Week, please vote below on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being weak, and 10 being excellent. The numbers will be tallied on Friday and the story with the highest figure shall be Crowned Story of the Week. Be sure to fill in your name and verifiable email. You can include your critique/comment after the vote.


2 comments on “Merchants and Gifts by Osas

  1. Dantez Mwendwa
    May 27, 2010

    Its excellent I give it a 9.


  2. Dantez Mwendwa
    May 27, 2010

    I lyk it i gv it a 9


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